Interview With Poet Denise Duhamel

Publish date:

(Note to prompt-hungry poets: This is not a prompt; please don't mistakenly post your poems for prompts into the comments of this blog post.)

Okay, so I know everyone's busy with writing poems for the April PAD Challenge and reading everyone else's poems, but I've got a great interview with a great poet burning a hole in my pocket. So, I'm gonna go ahead and post it here.

I remember first reading Denise Duhamel's Queen for a Day (University of Pittsburgh Press) while flying from one place to another. I can't remember which trip now, but maybe that's because while I was in the plane (both ways), I was sucked into Duhamel's poems. Anyway, I recently learned about her most recent collection Ka-Ching! (also University of Pittsburgh Press) and used that as an excuse to interview her.

There are many great poems in Ka-Ching!, but one of my favorites is this sestina:

Delta Flight 659
--to Sean Penn

I'm writing this on a plane, Sean Penn,
with my black Pilot Razor ballpoint pen.
Ever since 9/11, I'm a nervous flyer. I leave my Pentium
Processor in Florida so TSA can't x-ray my stanzas, penetrate
my persona. Maybe this should be in iambic pentameter,
rather than this mock sestina, each line ending in a Penn

variant. I convinced myself the ticket to Baghdad was too expensive.
I contemplated going as a human shield. I read in open-
mouthed shock, that your trip there was a $56,000 expenditure.
Is that true? I watched you on Larry King Live--his suspenders
and tie, your open collar. You saw the war's impending
mess. My husband gambled on my penumbra

of doubt. So you station yourself at a food silo in Iraq. What happens
to me if you get blown up?
He begged me to stay home, be his Penelope.
I sit alone in coach, but last night I sat with four poets, depending
on one another as readers, in a Pittsburgh cafe. I tried to be your pen
pal in 1987, not because of your pensive
bad boy looks, but because of a poem you'd penned

that appeared in an issue of Frank. I still see the poet in you, Sean Penn.
You probably think fans like me are your penance
for your popularity, your star bulging into a pentagon
filled with witchy wanna-bes and penniless
poets who waddle toward your icy peninsula
of glamour like so many menancing penguins.

But honest, I come in peace, Sean Penn,
writing on my plane ride home. I want no part of your penthouse
or the snowy slopes of your Aspen.
I won't stalk you like the swirling grime cloud over Pig Pen.
I have no scripts or stupendous
novel I want you to option. I even like your wife, Robin Wright Penn.

I only want to keep myself busy on this flight, to tell you of four penny-
loafered poets in Pennsylvania
who, last night, chomping on primavera penne
pasta, pondered poetry, celebrity, Iraq, the penitentiary
of free speech. And how I reminded everyone that Sean Penn
once wrote a poem. I peer out the window, caress my lucky pendant:

Look, Sean Penn, the clouds are drawn with charcoal pencils.
The sky is opening like a child's first stab at penmanship.
The sun begins to ripen orange, then deepen.


What are you currently up to?

I am teaching, giving a lot of readings, and writing at least 5 minutes a day. That was my resolution for 2008. I thought I can always find five minutes, right? Even if it's in the morning before coffee or before I fall asleep.

Sean Penn won another Best Actor Oscar recently for his role in Milk. As someone who's written a sestina for Penn, what is your favorite Sean Penn role?

My favorite Sean Penn role is actually Brad Whitewood, Jr. in the movie At Close Range.Penn plays Christopher Walker's son.

It seems that I see your name all over the place when reading online literary journals. Do prefer publication in online or print? Does the medium even matter?

I'm open to online magazines as well as print magazines.I am a fetishist when it comes to paper, so I like holding literary journals in my hands, but I also am excited by the idea of having work up online.More people see it that way and, even though the work is on a flickering screen, it somehow seems more permanent.

How do you handle the process of submitting your work?

I have some magazines that I really love and send to often.So I send to those places as well as new start up magazines.I am all about supporting the smallest of mags as that is where my poems were first published when no one else wanted them.

How do you go about putting your collections together?

My friend Stephanie Strickland reads though stacks of poems and helps me find the most accomplished ones and then we start looking for themes.She helped me enormously with Ka-Ching!

In Ka-Ching!, you use form a lot--from sestinas to prose poems in the shape of money. How important do you feel forms are to a developing (or even established) poet? Also, do you think they serve a purpose for the reader?

I resisted traditional form for a long time—I had a sonnet in my first book and then it was free verse and prose poems pretty much until Two and Two.I started feeling comfortable with form because of my collaborations with Maureen Seaton who is a master/mistress of the sonnet.When I wrote forms with her, I finally "got" how they were very freeing and fun.I think it's important for me to challenge myself and change and not get too comfortable in my poetry. 

In Ka-Ching!, you include many confessional poems that involve yourself, your husband (the poet Nick Carbo), and others. In your confessional poems, do you draw a line between reality and fiction? And if so, how do you determine where to make that line fuzzy?

I don't really draw the line so much.I love poetry because it is about memory and the way I remember things change and forms of poetry force me to change the story and my way of remembering.

Who (or what) are have you been reading recently?

Ed Falco's In the Park of Culture (short fictions), Bust (magazine subscription), NOR #5 (literary magazine), 5 a.m. #28 (literary magazine), and Mary Jane Ryals' The Moving Waters (poetry.) 

If you could pass on only one piece of advice to fellow poets, what would it be?

Read everything!Be open to everything.Trust your process. 


To find out more about Duhamel and Ka-Ching!, try visiting the University of Pittsburgh Press website at

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